Healthcare is often seen as the domain of behemoth hospital systems, multinational medical research corporations, affectionately known as “Big Pharma,” and government agencies whose budgets
stagger the imagination. What is often unseen and unheralded are the entrepreneurial ventures that quite often are the source of some of the industry’s most remarkable innovations. Jeff Baker, the CEO of one such company headquartered here in Central Florida, Noble, took an unlikely route to providing solutions for a global industry that generates almost a trillion dollars in annual business. For Baker, following the timeless formula of persistence, creativity and faith has produced remarkable outcomes.
Noble works with some of the world’s leading pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies to develop device training solutions designed to provide positive patient onboarding experiences, reduce errors and improve patient outcomes. This is crucial when the patient’s adherence to prescribed protocols are essential to positive outcomes.
EW: Where did the entrepreneurial journey begin?
JB: I grew up in a small town in Iowa, and my professional career really began with my first jobs, beginning with farm work and then, in high school, at a grocery store. I was working 35-40 hours a week in high school, but I learned a lot and moved up in the business. Then I went to a small junior college in northwest Iowa, which lasted a little over a semester. I was investing my own money and after a while I concluded maybe this wasn’t for me.
My parents moved to Chicago and I followed them there. By a process of elimination, I learned several types of work I didn’t want to do, from farming to factory work. Eventually, I answered an ad and was introduced to door-to-door sales in Chicago. I was selling knockoff perfume and cologne; it was fun and I enjoyed the engagement with people. I decided that Phoenix would be warmer and a more lucrative market, so I moved there and started my own business. In three and a half years I opened three offices. I look at that as my college experience.
EW: I’m still trying to connect how you got into the medical device business?
JB: It wasn’t a straight line. I moved back to the Indianapolis area, met my wife and was working in sales with a small company selling to the automotive industry. As we planned to get married, I tried to think of a business my wife could do at home, so we launched a promotional product business — giveaway items with logos screen printed on them.
Noble started in our spare bedroom in 1994. What we didn’t anticipate was that the other business didn’t pan out, which led to me focusing on growing Noble exclusively. In 1997, my younger brother Craig joined me. As we began to strategically assess where we wanted to take the company, we targeted the healthcare/pharmaceutical market.
EW: That is obviously a very significant decision; explain the evolution.
JB: We saw several markets that would let us move from being a geographically-based supplier to a national niche player, and one of them was healthcare. That included hospitals, doctors and nurses, pharmaceutical companies and device manufacturers. Then Craig landed an opportunity to work with Shire.
As we built our relationship with them, we had unique ideas. We found some value differentiation by analyzing the customer’s potential needs and presenting our ideas during initial appointments. The fact we took the time to prepare and do analysis separated us from many competitors. Nexium was our big break, where we made a full-court, agency-style presentation, completely storyboarded.
During that time, I was searching for better supply chain partners who could improve our position and make our presentations more dramatic. Our brand really got elevated. Then, the next major step came when we wanted to be more creative; rather than just putting a logo on some item, we started making presentations on custom-made products.
EW: What was behind the next key move you made?
JB: Though we were successful, I began to question how much value we were bringing both our clients and the ultimate end user, the patient. Every pharmaceutical brand we worked with struggled with adherence. Getting the patients to use the product in the way, and in the dosages, they had spent millions of dollars developing. Just like when a doctor prescribes you a 10-day antibiotic regimen, how many stay on it for the full 10 days?
There is a win-win outcome for appropriate adherence, both for the patient and the supplier. Though addressing that problem wasn’t something they were focusing on. Because for the pharmaceutical company, the client and decision maker, historically, has been the doctor, not the patient. The model, in some ways, disconnected the producer from the end user.
We had a passion to make a positive impact and saw this as an opportunity.
EW: I’m curious how you sold that concept to a client as discriminating as a pharmaceutical company?
JB: We framed it as ‘educational marketing’ — products to put in doctors’ and nurses’ hands to leverage a crucial and effective conversation. We began talking to the clinicians to understand the challenges: What were the communication barriers and how could they better engage with patients to transfer important knowledge?
On the production side, we had to scale from a supply chain perspective. I established a relationship with a manufacturer in China, who now I consider like a brother. Being able to work directly dramatically improved our execution.
Both sides of the business, both the promotional products and the educational products, continued to grow. In 2007, 60 percent of our business was custom promo products and 40 percent was the new educational tools, and then a bomb dropped. In 2008 the industry adopted, across the board, a zero-promotional products policy.
EW: What did you do? How did you survive?
JB: It was hard at the time, but none of our competitors were doing what we were doing with adherence training, so we went all in. Fortunately, 2007 was our best year, and we were able to secure credit, but the cuts we made were substantial; my brother and I went without salaries for two years and the team agreed to a four-day work week. Looking back, it really solidified us, but my faith was really tested.
EW: So, you made the turn, survived the transition and continued to grow, how? What was the incentive to relocate to Central Florida?
JB: It took about two years for the educational category to fill in the loss. Then we started exploring those areas where a drug is paired with a device, a combination therapy, because adherence levels there were even worse. We work to simplify everything for the patient and make sure there are no critical errors in dosage. To do that, the products and solutions we create are over a year in research and development.
The move to Florida happened because we were attracted to the creativity located here with companies like Disney and EA Sports. The EDC was very helpful in selling us on the area and making sure the transition was smooth. We couldn’t be happier. ◆